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Fundamentalist Guerrillas Step Up Level of Violence in Algeria


Algiers, Algeria -- Since the Armed Islamic Group, a shadowy guerrilla faction, threatened to kill all expatriates remaining in Algeria after Dec. 1, foreigners have rushed for the few remaining places on flights out of the country. Some were too slow: militants have so far murdered 20 Europeans since the deadline expired.

Those remaining keep a low profile, rarely venturing beyond secure hotels or work compounds. American diplomats -- half the embassy staff has already been evacuated -- say they use armored cars if they leave their embassy at all. The streets of the capital are deserted by dusk as even Algerians anticipate the night curfew.

"Most people are taking precautions," said one longtime European resident of the capital who had decided to stay, "but how long can we live like this? At some point, we have to return to normal."

"To some extent, the Islamic terrorists are winning," said Keith Bloomfield, first secretary at the British Embassy in Algiers. "Their aim is to get foreigners to leave the country as a way to destabilize the regime. They've already caused large numbers of Algerian intellectuals and foreigners to leave."

Dozens of Algerians -- intellectuals, judges, police -- have also been killed each week since the deadline expired, plunging the country into its most serious crisis since January 1992, when the army canceled elections that the opposition Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win.

The military, alarmed by the subsequent unrest, appointed a five-man presidency to disband the FIS, expelling its leaders and condemning 360 alleged militants to death. Since then, splinter factions have clashed with police, killing some 3,000 people across the country.

"The government destroyed the FIS systematically," said Mr. Bloomfield. "Now it has turned out that the FIS wasn't the enemy. By arresting all the FIS moderates, the government effectively ensured that the extremists took over."

The five-man junta finally stepped down Monday when the military appointed hard-line Defense Minister Lamine Zeroual as president. Moderate opposition parties said the move would only encourage violent opposition.

"We need to isolate those who advocate violence," said Djamal Benseba of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), the biggest of the legal opposition parties. "The only real solution is a new system."

The military is afraid that a FIS government would create North Africa's first fundamentalist Islamic republic. "They want to take the country back to the time of Mohammed," said one police officer in Algiers. Members of the French-speaking Algerian elite -- inheritors of the French colonial system -- fear that Islamic extremism would spread to neighboring Morocco and Tunisia.

Despite its national religion, Algeria can be very European. For 132 years -- until winning independence in 1962 -- the country was an integral part of France.

Taxi drivers play rock music, youths call out to pretty girls in short skirts. Even the white-walled buildings in the capital resemble Marseille.

"This is hardly Iran," said Mehdi, an Algerian student, as a troop of giggling party-goers skips into one of the capital's luxurious hotels.

Yet behind this facade lies a deeply traditional Muslim culture. For many, the divide is a personal one. "Algerians themselves are divided," says Sofian Bencharif, a former journalist for the Algerian newspaper el-Watan, "divided between disco and tradition. Each person has both these things inside him."

The authorities, though, have presented a unified reaction to the militant challenge. Masked special forces officers -- nicknamed "ninjas" -- roar through the streets of Algiers in trucks bristling with weapons. International human rights groups accuse Algeria's paramilitary forces of torture and summary executions, reported locally -- if at all -- as the death of unnamed "terrorists."

Middle East Watch, the New York-based human rights organization, criticized both the authorities and militants in a January report for appalling human rights abuses. "Sadly, the regime has done little in the field of human rights to distinguish itself from the . . . human rights disaster it claimed to be preventing," it says.

Western diplomats say they are embarrassed by the regime's human rights record, but can do little to change it. Privately, American diplomats admit that a militantly Islamic government is not in the interests of the United States. Furthermore, Spain, France and Italy depend to a varying extent on Algerian gas exports and will ignore much to ensure the gas gets through.

The government says it is willing to talk with former FIS members, most of whom are in prison or in exile. However, the leader of the FIS, Rabah Kabir, said in late January from exile in Germany that he was not willing to engage in a dialogue until all political prisoners were released. Islamic militants on the ground have also made it clear that the ex-FIS no longer speaks on their behalf. Indeed, they have threatened to kill anyone who talks to the government.

As a result, few believe a democratic solution can be found. A national conference in late January aimed at finding a democratic solution to the country's political crisis ended in farce when most major parties boycotted the talks.

"The chance of any real dialogue is zilch," said a Western diplomat in Algiers. "Four of the five major parties want the Islamists to have a real part in the dialogue. That's the last thing the army wants."

The government -- an offshoot of the FLN party which ruled Algeria as a one-party state since independence -- says it believes a political solution lies in an economic upturn. "Solve the economic problem and you solve the crisis," said an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Economics Minister Mourad Benachenhou says the government plans to invest its limited funds in public works. "We are trying to jump-start the economy," he said. "Public works are labor-intensive and have a large transfer effect on the whole economy. We have to resume growth."

Even his critics agree that Mr. Benachenhou has an uphill struggle. Interest on the country's $26 billion foreign debt sucks up $9.3 billion a year, more than 90 percent of hard currency earnings. Algeria loses $500 million for every dollar drop in the world price of oil, yet oil prices have dropped since the end of the Persian Gulf war.

With an overvalued currency, a significant budget deficit, and pressure to continue subsidies on basic foodstuffs, Mr. Benachenhou has little room for maneuver.

Prime Minister Redha Malek is hoping for a deal with the International Monetary Fund to loosen the noose of debt repayments. In return, though, he would have to agree to costly economic reforms that would bring large price increases -- and hence increased social unrest -- in the short term.

Observers believe that the government -- and the elite which supports it -- faces a long-term problem from Algeria's growing underclass. Two-thirds of the population is under the age of 26. Many lack both work and a command of French -- still required for most jobs. The country's birth rate is doubling the population every 23 years.

The FIS relied on this group for support in December 1991; millions voted against the 30-year litany of FLN corruption and mismanagement. "Many of my friends voted for the FIS," said Mr. Bencharif, the former journalist. "They weren't fundamentalist; they just wanted change."

For now, the violence appears likely to continue. "I expect the killings to go on," said Mr. Bloomfield of the British Embassy. "The more atrocities are committed, the harder it is for anyone to be moderate. I don't think anybody's safe now."

Ordinary Algerians are keeping their heads down. "People don't want to know about politics any more," said Mr. Bencharif. "They know the government lies to them, but they also don't believe in the violence. They're simply scared."

Colin Barraclough is a free-lance journalist.

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